The basic principles of migration and its hidden personal costs

Whenever we hear of migrants, we tend to think of people permanently moving from one country to another, forced to leave their homes by a tense political, economic, or environmental situation. This is the example of international refugee migration, which comprises 9% of total international migration.

As a term in social sciences, however, migration has a much broader definition:

Migration is not always a one-end trip to settle elsewhere, neither it must be a trip to another country: commuting to work from suburbs is a type of temporary migration that occurs regularly within a city.

Immigration and emigration correspond to one another like import and export, with emigration standing for leaving a certain territory and immigration for entering another.

The proportion of international migrants of the world population is 3.5% in 2020, but people can also migrate domestically, within countries and regions. Internal migration is difficult to track globally, it is not being reported as much as international migration by global entities, but I would guess that the proportion of internal migrants of the world population exceeds 3.5% significantly.

Migration is not a modern thing we suddenly have to deal with now

Migration has existed for most of our recorded history, and in many ways shaped the world we live in today. I compiled an incomplete list of significant events connected to migration and their consequences:

  • The great Migration Period (IV-VII centuries) contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.
  • The Muslim Conquests (VII-VIII centuries) shaped and spread Islam.
  • The Mongol Hordes conquered most of Eurasia (XIII century).
  • The Age of Exploration (XV-XVII centuries) triggered heavy migration waves to the Americas, Australia, and other places (to massive distress of aboriginal populations).
  • World Wars displaced millions of people in the XX century.
  • The Partition of decolonized India in 1947 forced around 16 million people to leave their homes.

There are also huge ongoing waves of migration connected to post-war repatriation (e.g. Israel), and globalization (best illustrated by the creation of the EU in the 90s).

While migration is ancient, its modern version does have its specifics. The main tidal change in the XX century transformed Europe from a center of emigration into a center of immigration. For the first time in centuries, people started migrating not from, but to Europe.

One of the reasons for this tidal change lies in the main principle behind choosing a migration destination:

How is migration affecting the world?

On one hand, migrants are a gift to any economy, as they offer cheaper labor. Contrary to popular belief, most migrants are people of working age, not children or elders that a government must support, and not slackers exploiting unemployment benefits. Out of 272 million migrants in 2020 more than a half (164 million) is a part of the registered workforce, and many more are likely to be working unofficially.

Nevertheless, economic advantages come with political dangers. Locals are less likely to be friendly towards outsiders when they realize that their cheaper labor not only contributes to lower prices for goods and services but also to lower salaries. This sentiment is often played by politicians in the form of “migrants are taking our jobs”. This is an oversimplified description of an extremely complex process that can’t fully reflect reality. Intuitively I would say that migrants are a driving force for the sectors that have a hard time recruiting locals, like construction. Even highly educated migrants don’t always manage to have their qualifications recognized, removing them from competition for higher-status positions.

Migration in social science

For more insight, let us turn to the father of migration theory, an English-German scientist Ernst Georg Ravenstein (1834–1913). He devised the basic principles of migration that remain relevant to social sciences:

1. Every migration stream generates a counter-stream. It’s impossible for the entire planet population to freely migrate to just one location. If some people leave, others settle in their place. However, this applies only to bigger territories: a village or a town can temporarily die off, but not an entire region or a country.

2. Most migrants travel over short distances — from city to city, or just across the border. Crossing huge distances at once is rare.

3. The minority of migrants that do travel far, chooses big cities, the centers of economic activity.

4. The urban population is less likely to migrate than the rural population. The main direction of migration is from a village to a town, then from a town to a city, from a city to a bigger one, then to the capital and finally, to a richer country.

5. Most migrants are single adults of working age: families and especially families with children are far less likely to migrate. Of all international migrants in 2020, only 13.9% were children (compare with 16% in 2000).

6. Big cities grow mostly due to migration and often have a small or even negative natural population growth.

7. Men are more likely to travel longer distances than women.

8. Migration is gradual. People don’t always settle at their first migration destination.

Formulated at the end of the XIX century and in many ways obvious for us now, this list includes several groundbreaking prophecies counterintuitive for the period, like urbanization, while most countries were still predominantly rural. The principles continue to withstand the test of time.

How does a person experience migration?

My interest in the topic is due to myself being a fresh international migrant. I discussed the psychological and trivial parts of this experience with my friends, who have also migrated to another country recently. We managed to come up with some possible hidden costs of migration, some of which can apply to people in different degrees of intensity, or not apply at all, depending on personal background and the nature of their migration.

Things you used to do automatically back home ask for your undivided attention and extra energy.

You might find it difficult to navigate.
How do you tell what kind of neighborhood you are in, or what kind of person you are talking to? Every small task like crossing a road, getting on a bus, or going to a store might turn into a challenge, requiring extra energy, which you would normally spend on something more complex or productive. Your mind will likely try to minimize stress by urging you to stay at home more and to go to familiar shops, which is not a bad thing in itself, though it slows your integration and prevents you from the organic discovery of people and places.

You’ll have to build your local social network from the ground up.
Even though you would be able to stay in touch with your relatives and friends from your home region. You used to have an organic and multilayered network, the one that naturally built itself with you going from one stage of life to another, like school, university, and work. In a new place, there won’t initially be many people to ask for help or to learn very specific things from. Building a new net of such essential relationships, however small, will require extra energy.

You will likely have to climb to your accustomed social status.
That’s yet another consequence of exiting your social circle. You might encounter obstacles of distrust and fear, especially if your appearance indicates you are an outsider. Your education has a chance of not being fully recognized abroad, which might lead you to be overqualified and underpaid for the jobs you do.

Your nationality and ethnicity will be likely the first set of lenses locals will perceive you through.
Regardless of your ideas about the role of nationality and ethnicity in your life. That could become the main and sometimes only subject for a conversation: where do you come from, how did you come here, how is it similar or different. If you find it stressful, keep in mind that this is a completely natural set of questions for a human mind, and you won’t be able to avoid it entirely.

The language barrier.
It can also become a problem and require extra energy to overcome. Even if you do have a common foreign language to communicate with locals (often English), expect them to switch to their mother tongue while discussing complex or emotional topics, or in group conversations. Conversely, you lose the opportunity to use your core language, which is often the one offering better technical background and emotional expression.

Everything and all about money.
At first, there is no way to tell if an item is cheap or expensive in a supermarket. The same applies to tips in restaurants and cafes, not just to the sum itself, but also to the very existence of tip-giving in the receiving culture. In some countries, there are also different measurement units, and tax policies, which ask for a peculiar mindset and behavior and extra energy. Even within one country, there are specific logistics and import/export conditions making some products cheaper or more expensive than you’re used to.

The weather conditions might become trying as well.
What do locals call too cold or too hot? How to dress appropriately for the weather? How humid is it and how fast can the weather change? Moreover, the common flu will probably hit you harder with its local variety. You might even discover a new allergy if you are especially unlucky. In this special state, your body will take extra energy and time to heal cuts and fight off any kind of aggressors, which is rarely a pleasant experience.

Emergency services.
This is my main source of panic. You are probably not immediately aware of the way you get emergency services such as calling an ambulance, the police, getting medical prescriptions. If such a question arises in a critical situation, you lack the schooling that embeds instinctive reactions into your backbone. Such a situation can arise while migrating within a country too: in villages, you are often supposed to know the phone number of the local sheriff.

Unclear instructions.
Even if you have family and friends in the new place, their help and explanations can be quite incomprehensive. They mean no harm: it is human nature to omit the obvious, which wouldn’t always be obvious for you. You will have to spend extra energy accounting for this every time you ask for clarification.

A traitor and a softie.
A surprising hidden cost lies in the perspective of your fellow countrymen. They might perceive you as a kind of a traitor, or a softie, who couldn’t endure the noble life of loss and misery in their own village, city, or country. They might put down every statement you make about your region of origin, claiming that by choosing to become an outsider, you forfeit the right to judge your home. This feels especially unfair since you have a real chance to get to know your home by comparison from a distance that is needed to be more objective. This distance also allows you to learn what you had and did not have at home, what is important or not so much.

If we look at the statistics, we will see that the top five countries of migrant origin are developing countries (India, Mexico, China, Russia, and Syria). Coming from one of them, I observe a perceptibly common sentiment:

Meanwhile, migration is a luxury often financially unavailable for people even in direct danger to their lives. Moreover, the idea that somebody has to uproot their entire livelihood to switch to a life of dignity and basic comfort, is a depressing one, especially when forced on you by your fellow countrymen.

Migration is stressful even if it’s objectively an all-around upgrade of the quality of life, surroundings, and a paycheck. A better place to live does not negate migration’s hidden costs. Coming from a less developed background, you are often at a disadvantage in comparison to locals, who factor the prosperity of their surroundings in their choices, accomplishing more while spending less time and energy.

Good luck with overcoming that to us all.


For hard numbers about migration, I refer to the 2020 edition of the UN’s Global Migration Report. It is a strangely fascinating 500+ page report, which I have never imagined I would be reading with such interest.

The recollection of the basic migration principles and an overview of the entire term is loosely based on a radio program by a Russian political scientist Ekaterina Schulmann (Echo of Moscow: Status, s2ep10, aired 06.11.18).

The disclaimer for the list of hidden personal costs of migration: neither I nor my friends are social scientists. We also don’t make a representative sample, coming from the same country, having the same education; all of us are in our early 20s. If you have suggestions to improve on the list or can bring perspective from a different background, I would be happy to hear them out, since the subject is going to remain relevant both to me and to society.

Linguist and musician, carrying out my intellectual duty

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store